Take Heed, ‘Cause I’m A Lyrical Poet

I attended two events at Wordfeast last week, in an attempt to haul myself back onto the poetry wagon. One was a poetry slam competition, and the other was a conventional reading.

I wish I could enthuse about how they rekindled my poetic mojo, and how I will be bounding up to mics in the future to spreadeagle my words for the world, but I unfortunately find myself in the bollockless position of having mixed reactions to it all.

My first problem is that I was quite often very bored. Look, I know this probably crosses some poetry-writers’ solidarity line in the sand, but a lot of poetry can just be boring when read out loud, even if it works well enough on the page. This is especially so when the poem is long and the voice is monotonous. I don’t care if it’s recognized some day as the Paradise Lost of 2003, I’m still going to have to say my first experience with it was far from edifying.

My second is that I was quite often very frustrated. A lot of poems that sounded like I could have enjoyed them were so badly delivered by their authors as to render them a waste of breath. I know it can’t be helped that not all good poets are good performers. And I’m not insisting the whisperers, mumblers, droners and mic-dummies of this world be barred from reading their own poetry out loud. I’m just pointing out that with some practice in the relevant skills, or alternatively roping in a competent friend to do it for you, the jump in appreciation for the listener can be so significant as to make it well worth considering if you want your presence there to be even worthwhile. The most transcendental experience I have ever had with a poetry reading was in the shabby basement of my hall of residence in London, where my hallmate James read Seamus Heaney’s Death Of A Naturalist so evocatively that for a moment I almost truly believed myself to be surrounded by vengeful frogs.

My third problem is that in response to the now-obvious heckle of “Well why don’t you go on up and show everyone how to do it properly then, smartass?” I must admit that although I think I’m all right at reading poems out loud, I think my own stuff is decidedly mediocre. So I’m not quite ready to assume the mantle of Poetry Reading Saviour of Singapore either.

My fourth problem is that every time I get bored, I am consumed by the urge to go up there and recite Ice Ice Baby with great feeling. I held back at Wordfeast because I felt it would be fairly rude to consciously lower the tone of the event, and also because it might be seen as poking fun at some of the less successful attempts at rhyming poems. But some day I fear it will overcome me.

5 comments

  1. The most transcendental experience I have ever had with a poetry reading was in the shabby basement of my hall of residence in London, where my hallmate James read Seamus Heaney’s Death Of A Naturalist so evocatively that for a moment I almost truly believed myself to be surrounded by vengeful frogs.

    Exactly. Which is the point isn’t it, this stoking of the imagination. An evocative performance – no matter how impassioned, can only be by its very nature ersatz; second-hand: it is a replication of experience (since it is mediated first by the reader) which dilutes the authenticity and primacy of an experience that can only be had from a first-hand, unmediated engagement with print on paper. Sure, it can transmit and create along with the recitation some of the imagination-stoking elements, but never all of it. Removed from print, poetry loses its emotive force because you can’t roll the words over your tongue, track back, do a double take, marvel, ponder, have the words grip> you, and so on. Sounds evaporate. Print doesn’t. As such, most conventional poetry readings are the aural equivalent of aromata to an empty stomach – i.e. ultimately unfulfilling. Print is tangible and like food, semi-permanent at least until masticated. Accordingly, poetry reading is – and should be – a private, almost solipsistic engagement which requires that the object of appreciation be mulled over and chewed on (or spat out, as the case may be). Anything more is pretentious, and more aptly titled ‘wankfest’.

  2. unbelievably, I actually went for a poetry slam, and it very unfortunately happened to occur halloween week. imagine really lame ‘actors’ attempting to bring ‘life’ to poetry about werewolves etc. v painful. thank god for kilkenny’s and relief one finds at the bottom of a pint glass, make that several pint glasses. someone should assassinate that singh.

  3. “An evocative performance – no matter how impassioned, can only be by its very nature ersatz; second-hand: it is a replication of experience (since it is mediated first by the reader) which dilutes the authenticity and primacy of an experience that can only be had from a first-hand, unmediated engagement with print on paper.”

    Hmmn, mostly yes, but occasionally no. My first encounter with Sylia Plath’s “Oh Daddy” was a BBC radio broadcast of a recording of the author reading her own poem (and with a passion): there was nothing very ersatz about that. That particular recitation might be deemed a tad melodramatic by some, but all my subsequent re-readings of the poem on the printed page have been blissfully subverted by the memory of it, and I guess they always will be.

  4. hey, i was surfing around and found your site. was it george orwell who said that a poetry reading was a gruesome thing? if it wasn’t it should have been. didn’t someone have a line that went, ‘the good words change and positivity / are erased [or something] by your negative mentality.’ he definitely tried to rhyme positivity with mentality.

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